What’s the Key to a Successful Employee Development Program?

by Gary Markle

Coachability Sets the Stage for Performance Improvement

I’m frequently asked to describe what differentiates a successful employee development program from a less successful one. In a word, the answer is “coachability.”

If I could do only one thing to maximize the chance that a supervisor’s performance improvement advice would be followed by a direct report, I’d focus on helping the employee understand why a positive predisposition toward change might be in the best interest of the direct report, the supervisor, and the organization. Fertile soil makes growth much easier.

I recently observed a company owner give her general manager four improvement areas on which to concentrate in the coming year. One of those areas for growth was to stand up and take a more visible leadership role in organization-wide meetings. The recommendation was conveyed as part of a coaching session that concluded at 2:00 in the afternoon. At 3:00 there was a holiday meeting with all employees present. The company owner stood up to lead the meeting as usual. But then the general manager asked if he could say a few words to the assembly. Speaking from freshly prepared notes, he proceeded to recap the current year, forecast the next, and publicly commit to conducting more of these meetings in the coming year. I cannot think of a more commanding way in which to communicate to the owner, “message received”! Now that is what I call coachability.

Here’s another example. During a catalytic coaching employee input session, the operations manager of a large services organization stated she was interested in being considered for the CEO position in the five-year (or later) time horizon. She made this statement wearing blue jeans and a faded polo shirt with a vendor logo prominently featured. The person to whom she was presenting the information was wearing a suit and tie. This is how he came to work every day, as one never knows when an important client or benefactor might pay a visit.

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As part of the coach’s effort to “say to the employee what you would say more comfortably about her to someone else,” the CEO coach established the theme of “Image Management” as her fourth area for improvement. She later put it, “He actually talked about the giant white elephant in the room.” She knew that her personal dress habits were lacking, but the internal focus of her operations position did not require anything more formal. During his counsel, he described to her the need to help the Board of Directors see in her what he already saw – a legitimate candidate for succession. The casual clothing was a potential distraction and created an image of her not in keeping with the position she coveted.

Despite her knowledge of the wardrobe delta, hearing it articulated out loud was a bit challenging. The next morning, however, she came to work in a newly purchased pantsuit. She decided to “run for office” and to start doing things in keeping with the role she wanted instead of the role she currently occupied. Message sent. Message received. Another great example of coachability.

The bottom line? If you want to make rapid and significant behavioral change in your direct reports, take the time to ensure the groundwork has been laid for a positive reception to your suggested areas for improvement. Teach them why it’s in everyone’s best interest for them to make changes. And you too will create an atmosphere of coachability.